The desolation of Skyrim

Screenshot from Skyrim showing a bored looking player

Saturday 9th of September 2017

Contrary to earlier evidence and all likelihood, I've managed to become quite involved in the world of Skyrim over the past year and a bit, racking up a fairly hefty 90 plus hours in its digital depths. My character is heavily armed and equipped with all the perks and skills I could possibly want, and I have explored almost the entire land and completed much of the game. I am, however, at a tipping point.

I can't be certain, but I'm fairly sure I'm close to completing the main quest, but I've deliberately left it unfinished. In Oblivion, the previous game, once the main quest was completed the world changed, and I was no longer able to explore the various interesting portals that had appeared around the land. In Skyrim, I fear a similar thing might happen; if I complete the main quest, will I no longer encounter and be able to battle the occasional random dragons?

I daren't risk it, and I daren't risk looking up the answer online in case I encounter a spoiler as to the ultimate plot. Instead, my attention turns to wandering the world and wrapping up all the side quests. It is here that the problem begins.

Despite its open world nature, I've come to realise that Skyrim is, in a sense, quite linear. Although you can choose to do the quests in any order and they fall into two obvious groups (hero and anti-hero) there remains little choice in the moral path you can choose other than simply refraining from the darker quests. The main quest, and a lot of the side quests, involve heroism, helping people, virtuous stuff. I've done most of those now. All that's left is the bad guy stuff.

Screenshot showing two guards doing nothing.
Must be pretty dull, being a guard. Standing around all day waiting for a scripted event to happen.

I tend to play games as a generally good person. Any time I'm required to do something sneaky or underhand, I get uncomfortable (unless it's against some obviously evil types). Let me illustrate this: I'd previously completed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic as a 'good' Jedi. Having enjoyed it immensely, and keen to get as much out of the game as possible, I started again, this time determined to play as the villain. Long story short - I couldn't do it. Just didn't have it in me. I kept starting off evil then backing down and helping people out.

My problem is that I want to get as much out of Skyrim as I can but I don't want to do anything that would be considered morally unjust or just plain 'bad'. Except that I've done all the 'good' quests already. So what's left?

The darker side of Skyrim is demonstrated well by the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood quests. In each you can choose the path of evil, thief or murderer. Regardless of your personal inclination, it seems contrary to many of your previous actions in the main quest to take on such roles, particularly after achieving the title of 'Thane' in various towns (effectively a knighthood from the person in charge, in recognition of your services to them).

Screenshot showing a man looking really bored.
This guy clearly has nothing to do.

I tried the Dark Brotherhood quests, murdered one person and haven't been back since. It's quite strange that after killing my way across Skyrim for literally nearly four whole days, carving my way through bandits, wizards, monsters and other assorted nasties, I can't bring myself to slay digital people when it's plainly labelled as murder, rather than the perhaps thin excuses of self defence or war. What, that dead necromancer? Oh, he attacked me. Also, he was totally evil, so it's okay.

At first I thought that the Thieves Guild quests might offer a chance to play the villain in order to ultimately bring about good. Characters I encountered in the town of Riften (the headquarters of the Guild) lamented the stranglehold of the thieves on their home. After it became apparent that there would be no clear way to stop them heroically, I thought perhaps the game was encouraging me to infiltrate the Guild so that I could eventually strike from within, destroying them utterly.

Well, no. Not so far, anyway. I've stolen some things, earned some coin, and generally behaved in a way that has made me feel uncomfortable. And now, finally, we get to my tipping point.

Screenshot showing a dragon high in the sky.
Wait, look! A dragon! They're so cool.

I am, it's fair to say, fairly bored of Skyrim. It's still pretty, there's still things to collect and explore, but I think I've seen most of what it has to offer. All of the good guy stuff apart from the main quest is complete. This leaves me with only a few options.

Option 1 - stop playing. Just stop. No really, just stop. I'd like to, I think, but there's something about those incomplete quest markers on the map that make me itch. It's like when you finish one of TT's Lego games and it announces you've only completed 23% of the game. I can't just leave it there.

Option 2 - finish the main quest, and then stop. I could do this, sure, but I really like the dragons. Also I think I read somewhere that you can ride them (I've got all the DLC). If I stop them from appearing then presumably I can't do that, and I really want to.

Option 3 - and this is what it's come to. Option 3 is to meander, both within the game and around my moral boundaries. If I slightly disconnect my brain, it's okay to steal things. It's just a game, right? So it's okay to murder the odd person, probably. They're not real, after all, and I wouldn't do it in real life, so it's okay. And yet... somehow I feel tarnished. The hopeful citizens of this land, who trusted me with their lives, their eyes wide and hopeful as I offered to help them, would be shocked to see me now - crawling through the grubby underbelly of their world, all to finish off some needless side quest.

I hardly even know what I'm doing anymore. I'm currently helping some of the thieves take down one of the other thieves after he tried to take down a different thief, but honestly somewhere in the middle of it all I simply forgot the name of the character I was trying to stop. All I'm doing now is following the next quest marker.

Screenshot showing a woman looking bored.
Yes. I walked around the game for half an hour trying to find bored looking people. It was not difficult.

So here I am. Drifting through this world that I was nearly the hero of, staring without compassion through the faces of those I meet. Will I help them? Will I kill them? Does any of it really matter? I collect treasure now only for the small feeling of normalcy that comes from selling it in a familiar shop, but it is still grey and joyless. Occasionally I pay too little attention, and I am felled by a sudden attack, my lifeless body tumbling to the ground, but that too is meaningless, as restoration is only a quick load away.

Completing the game doesn't matter to me anymore. I walk through the world like a ghost, having exhausted all of the interesting interactions. It is a grind; I enter a dungeon, I kill a monster, I acquire loot. The game is a distraction, an old haunt that I return to infrequently yet habitually, entering disoriented and blinking mid-quest. Will I remember where I left off, or divert from my quest, distracted by something else? Will I care about those left behind, or even those still ahead? What is the point of any of it, really?

Or maybe I'm just over thinking this, and I should try some Rocket League instead. That's probably healthier.

Appendix: stories from Skyrim

One aspect of Skyrim that I still find entertaining is the occasional flaw I encounter in it. It's a hugely detailed game, and an enormous accomplishment, but sometimes weird things happen.

The misplaced woman

I'd come to a village in the north, apparently beset by strange goings on. A house had burned down and there were noises coming from the swamp, oh, and some vampires were plotting to overrun the town. I ambled into the local bar and had a few short but uninteresting conversations with the locals - the owner, an orc musician, and a woman dressed more richly than the others who seemed like she should be part of some kind of quest, but she wasn't. She just sat there.

I eventually became caught up in the plot surrounding the town, my efforts culminating in a request from the local Jarl to hunt down a vampire chief who lived in the swamp. Aided in my quest by a bunch of townsfolk who looked about as ready to deal with a vampire as they would be to deal with the apocalypse, I made my way to the vampire's lair. Ditching my cohorts outside, I snuck into the gloomy interior, dispatching various vampire underlings with carefully placed arrows as I went. Eventually I came to a large chamber, in the centre of which sat a man at a large banqueting table. Safely hidden in the shadows, I fired off a couple of arrows at him, but before I could properly finish him off he ran out into a side room. I came down from my hiding place and cautiously made my way to the table, ready for a second attack, when suddenly the game announced that I had killed the chief vampire and I should report to the townsfolk my questing progress.

Confused, I followed my quarry into the side room, to find his body lying on the floor. Standing next to him, acknowledging my presence with a polite hello, but otherwise utterly impervious to any attempts to communicate with her, was none other than the woman from the bar. For some unknown reason. So... she killed him? Or what? Seriously Skyrim, what was that about?

Flying Mammoths

Also, has anyone else encountered flying mammoths? I keep wandering out across the plains from Whiterun to see them in the distance, hovering in the sky, quite unconcerned by their impossible altitude. Whenever I get close they drop suddenly to the ground, as if nothing has happened. They're like the cows from that Far Side strip - standing chatting in a field until a car drives past, and then suddenly they're all what, talking? Us? We're cows mate, don't be daft.

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